Today was a hard day.
Visiting the Auschwitz Museum must never be a cheery experience, but today it seemed particularly grim. I knew most of the information that poured through the earphones I wore throughout the tour. But my visceral reaction was almost too much to bear. To see the piles of preserved human hair encased behind glass, to look at the wall where countless victims were shot, to stand in spaces used as gas chambers for killing victim after victim noiselessly – no amount of description could prepare me for this day.
After the normal tour of the Auschwitz Museum, our guide took us to the building that contained the history of the Roma genocide victims. She was well informed and wonderful, but I could not help feeling frustrated that more information on the Roma victims wasn’t specifically integrated into the traditional tour. Learning about the Roma genocide should not be only for those who request it. Certainly, the experience of Jews and “Gypsies” during the Holocaust was slightly different; but as long as we are not systematically encouraged to recognize the similarities and shared aspects of this history, we miss an important opportunity to help reduce discrimination about the Roma.
Our trip to Birkenau was strenuous and haunting. This is where the commemoration ceremony took place; our trip involved long walks to the site where the August 2 liquidation of the Roma family camp took place, to the pool where their ashes rest, and to the Roma memorial. Some conference members proudly carried their national flags; others wandered in silence, solemnly processing the day’s events.
The most moving experience of all was the long walk back to the buses through a barbed wire corridor. Some Roma conference members had gone ahead, and stood lining our walkway, each wearing a white armband bearing the letter “Z” (for “zigeuner” – “gypsy” – the Nazi designation for Roma and Sinti). “Dik I Na Bistar,” the armbanded participants chanted as we passed by. “Dik I Na Bistar – Look and Don’t Forget.”
They are the living memory. We – Roma and gadje alike – must now bear witness.